The COVID-era campus - Albuquerque Journal

The COVID-era campus

A lone student walks through the Cornell Mall of the University of New Mexico. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

New Mexico’s colleges and universities are using a variety of tools and tactics to keep students, faculty and other employees safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

They also are involved in key research projects connected to the virus, which has claimed the lives of nearly 200,000 Americans and 800 New Mexicans.

The University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University and Central New Mexico Community College all produced detailed “return-to-school” plans over the summer.

“The leadership at UNM and the (Health Sciences Center) worked diligently (over the summer),” said Carla Domenici, director of finance and administration for strategic initiatives, who has been named the UNM’s COVID coordinator. “I think that hard work and thoughtfulness has worked.”

Jennifer Ross, left, of Electronic Caregiver, explains the equipment that Carol MacDonald, right, a nurse supervisor at the Aggie Health and Wellness Center at New Mexico State University, will use to participate in a project to evaluate an automated telehealth system that monitors COVID-19 symptoms.

Most other higher education institutions in the state – including New Mexico Highlands University, Eastern New Mexico University and others – have released their own comprehensive return-to-campus plans as well. Visit those schools’ websites for more details about their individual plans.

Most classes at UNM, NMSU and CNM are currently conducted through remote learning with a few in-person classes and labs. A smaller number of students are living in the dorms at UNM and NMSU.

“We are preparing for the most unusual fall term in CNM’s history,” said CNM president Tracy Hartzler in a YouTube address where she also stressed her appreciation for the hard work and patience of those in the CNM community.

New Mexico State University researchers take wastewater to be tested for the coronavirus.

Among measures schools have taken include:

• School officials said students have been given new conduct codes that require them to wear masks and socially distance. The colleges’ deans of students also will make efforts to monitor students’ off-campus behavior.

• After someone on campus has tested positive for COVID-19, contact tracers work to determine whether others on campus are at risk.

• Both UNM and NMSU have created large outdoor seating areas where students can study or socialize at distance.

• Both UNM and NMSU have warned their fraternities, sororities and dorm residents against holding large gatherings.

⋄ CNM improved ventilation in many of its buildings.

• UNM is sending “mask ambassadors” throughout campus to encourage healthy habits.

• NMSU researchers are working on a wastewater testing system that will monitor for signs of the virus. The technique has already been used at other colleges throughout the country, with the goal of detecting coronavirus in feces before people start to show symptoms.

UNM Students Jonathan Vencil and Mark Bailon walk along Cornell Mall at UNM Sept. 1. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Safety projects

Among other research efforts, NMSU is partnering with a local telemedicine technology company to evaluate an early detection system for the virus. Over the summer, Las Cruces-based Electronic Caregiver began deploying a system to monitor 100 study participants – 40 students and 60 faculty members – before they leave home and then pre-screening them every morning for signs of infection.

If the morning surveys detect any red flags, the system tells that person to seek medical advice, alerts health professionals about the issue and offers direct online consultation to determine next steps, said project director Joe Tomaka, a professor in the Public Health Sciences Department at NMSU’s College of Health and Services.

The project is a feasibility study to try to encourage symptom monitoring among those on campus.

The six-month project could show whether broad technology deployment can help change individual patterns of behavior, encouraging people to take the necessary precautions to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Central New Mexico Community college pictured in 2017. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

“People say they’re monitoring for symptoms already, but we’re not sure how much that conscious effort actually happens,” Tomaka said. “This study will show if folks can do this on a daily basis.”

At UNM, Marygold Walsh-Dilley, an associate professor in the Honors College, is leading a study to determine the patterns of food insecurity among students at UNM.

The UNM campus in July.

The Basic Needs Study at UNM measures the prevalence and patterns of food and housing insecurity experienced by students, according to Walsh-Dilley.

“It began with a focus on food insecurity, which is what my own research and teaching examine, but it expanded to also include housing insecurity because there is a growing interest both here on campus and in the literature more broadly to understand both issues simultaneously.”

The study examines the rates of food and housing insecurity and how they are patterned across different demographic groups on the UNM campus. Because the COVID-19 pandemic occurred during data collection, the study will also examine the virus’ impact on students’ basic needs over the next few years.

Vaccine research

UNM researchers are among the ranks of scientists across the globe conducting studies that might lead to a vaccine, according to a UNM Health Sciences release.

Empty tables and chairs outside the Student Union in July at UNM.

Researchers David Peabody and Bryce Chackerian are working on a project to create vaccines from particles the school describes as “the opposite of Trojan Horses,” a release said. “They look deadly on the outside but are harmless on the inside.”

Researchers hope the particles will trick people’s bodies into thinking they have been infected, triggering a reaction that will prepare it for the actual virus, the release said. The team is using a one-year $250,000 grant to develop the vaccine.

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